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Original Issue


The marathon trials have gone too commercial

Oh dear. Just when you think you can outlive your past an envelope arrives from the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon, which will serve as this year's U.S. Men's Olympic Trials. The enclosed letter says the race, in Jersey City on April 24, is throwing itself open to all former U.S. Olympic marathoners. We are invited to run and—poignant anticlimax—attend the banquet. All expenses paid.

Olympic marathoners must finish among the top three in their trials every four years or accept that dread label, "former." I have been former since pneumonia kept me out of the trials in 1976. But the bittersweet fact is that for a moment, as the letter drifts to the carpet, I forget all that. Shoes, I think. Which shoes?

The fastest marathon I could run now, even if I were sound and fit instead of scarred and overtraveled, would be 15 minutes slower than my best, run in 1970, of 2:11:36. I am—quaver out the next word, Moore, in your best Walter Brennan—old. Maybe I'll attend the dinner. Be nice to see Billy Mills and George Young, from the '64 and '68 teams, respectively, and the fellow I raced the most in my undergraduate imagination, Buddy Edelen, who set a world best of 2:14:28 in 1963. I'll fill out this entry form, just in case....

Agent? They want to know my agent? There's a sign of the times. The first marathon I ever ran, the 1963 Pacific Northwest AAU in Olympia, Wash., had nine entrants and was one of only two marathons on the West Coast that year. I'm old and crotchety, I tell you, because until '76 even the finest athletes never had their way paid to the Olympic trials. "Think," said USOC official Philip O. Krumm in '72, aghast at the mere mention of expense money, "of the floodgates that would open."

Was he ever right. Now they're flying in geezers they never flew in when they were champs.

Even more startling, the 1988 Olympic trials will award $150,000 in prize money, $50,000 of it to the victor. I was never completely in favor of amateurism when it was here, because it seemed to have been clamped on us by sanctimonious millionaires, but the trials isn't a money race. Imagine the fourth-place, nonqualifying finisher going to deposit his check and the teller exclaiming, "Wow, $15,000 for running a race. You must have done great, huh?"

These trials have an airline, a phone company, an insurance company, a bank and a newspaper as sponsors. Therefore, insists the letter, runners are expected to attend the banquet. And the banquet is before the race. In the old days, contenders who didn't care to trust their prerace nutrition to hotel cooking would have unsheathed a claw or two.

That's because the trials are always terrifying and sad. You have to kill or be killed. Don Kardong and Tony Sandoval, friends from Stanford, ran together for much of the' 1976 trials. Ahead of them, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers had the top two spots sewn up. Only one place was left. "It was terrible," says Kardong, "when it came time to leave him." So trial is a good word for our team selection via the adversary system.

By contrast, I remember the hours preceding both my Olympic marathons—in Mexico City in 1968 and four years later in Munich—as being relaxed and almost enjoyable. Before the 1972 race I lounged in the warm-up area and read Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Teammate Jack Bacheler was resting nearby. You can watch Visions of Eight, David Wolper's film of those Olympics, and see that Shorter was groggily yawning before the start.

Shorter won. I was fourth, and Bacheler ninth. They say our performance started the running boom in the U.S. I don't know about that, but having done well lets me indulge in the great luxury of the aged—whining that everything is going to hell in a hand basket.

Case in point: The U.S. has had no top men's marathoner since Alberto Salazar's decline, because of injury, in 1983. The fastest American male of 1987, Marty Froelick, ran 2:10:59. That placed him 16th on the world list for the year.

Could it be that the exploding calendar in the U.S., the agents pushing for more racing, more endorsements and appearances, the sponsors offering deals runners can't refuse—banquets they can't refuse—have hemorrhaged the legs or altered the values of the best American runners to the point where they can't, or can't afford to, peak for a single race like the Olympic marathon? "It's harder to train and do commercial work than it is just to train when you're poverty-stricken," says Rodgers, who has made and lost a fortune in running.

Could it be that we were better runners when we were amateurs? It has taken so much senescent nodding just to get to that question that, look, there's no page left. We'll have to let it hang there, a juicy curiosity. I bet it will come up at the banquet.